If you're looking for the first comic strip in the format we recognize today--a sequence of images in which words and pictures are integrated in the telling of a story--then comics probably date from the 1890s. Sorry, Rodolphe Töpffer. (1) The origins of modern day science fiction are less discrete. One argument might be just as good as another. But why don't we start with the 1890s and the publication of H.G. Wells' novels The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898)? In a period of four years, Wells produced a time travel story, a story of monsters and mutation, the tale of an invisible man, and--for all practical purposes--the first narrative of an invasion from outer space. All would be fodder for science fiction writers of the twentieth century. And we shouldn't forget that the first pulp magazine was published in 1896.
If science fiction and comics were born in 1895-1896, they didn't quite grow up together. Newspaper comics became enormously popular, and (despite later claims to primacy made by European intellectuals) a truly and uniquely American art form. Book publishers cashed in on the popularity of newspaper comics by issuing bound collections of reprints. These were supposedly the first comic books and the mark of the so-called Platinum Age of Comic Books. (Comic book fans have shown themselves to be far more thorough systematizers than science fiction fans.) The first comic books in the format we recognize now were printed in 1933, but these, too, were reprints. The first comic books with original material didn't show up in print until 1935.
Science fiction on the other hand evolved in the pages of pulp magazines, from the early scientific romances, through planetary romance, "Scientifiction," and space opera, to the science fiction of the 1930s. Edgar Rice Burroughs was instrumental in popularizing science fiction. One Golden Age author after another attributed his or her interest in the genre to first reading Burroughs, especially the Martian novels, which began with the pulp serial "Under the Moons of Mars" (1912), published in book form as A Princess of Mars in 1917. The next two decades saw the first publication of an all-fantasy magazine (Weird Tales in 1923), the first all-science fiction magazine (Amazing Stories, 1926), the invention of the term science fiction (1929), the first science fiction fan clubs (ca. 1929), and the first science fiction fan magazine (The Comet, 1930). The first science fiction conventions followed in the 1930s. By the time the Golden Age of Science Fiction began in 1938 (or even 1933), the die was cast. Science fiction was more or less what we know today.
To be continued . . .
(1) The important point here is the integration of words and pictures. Rodolphe Töpffer and other European cartoonists even to this day separate their words, in the form of captions, from their pictures. Prince Valiant is a good example of the European approach. (It's the reason why I think that Prince Valiant may not be a true comic strip. It's worth noting that Hal Foster, the creator of Prince Valiant, was Canadian, hence closer in some ways to Britain than to America.) Some early American newspaper comics used the same approach, but most switched to using word balloons after the example of Richard F. Outcault in his drawings of the Yellow Kid. Although the Kid made his debut in 1895, it took about a year before Hogan's Alley (the name of the feature in which he appeared) evolved into what we would call a comic strip. Historians argue over the date of the first American newspaper comic strip. Some say 1895, some 1896. That's close enough.
Copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley